Soren Jaffe flipped through the playlist that fueled every single practice run leading up to what would be his first-ever marathon. As his friend’s beat-up Honda sped to the starting line through the frozen Ohio countryside, the 18-year-old tried to calm his nerves by making sure everything musically was in order — full battery, the right songs in the right places, shuffle tuned off.
“Then it just shut off, and never turned back on,” Jaffe tells me. “If it was one day earlier, I could have planned around it, but nope, it was literally while I was getting transported to my first marathon, for which I’d been training with music the whole time.”
As mad as he was, there was nothing he could do about it. He wasn’t going to throw away five months of training because his hand-me-down Zune suddenly stopped working. So for the next 3 hours, 53 minutes and 53 seconds, Jaffe ran in silence. No deadmau5, no Zedd, no Avicii — just himself and his thoughts. “It was a huge mental test,” he says, “but I’ve never run with music again.”
On the subreddit r/running, others who run without music describe a similarly enlightening experience. “Running with music is great when you absolutely hate running or feel slow and lousy,” says TJ, a 31-year-old in Texas. “But ultimately it’s like putting ranch on vegetables: It helps you get through it, but you’re definitely not adding ranch to better experience the carrot.”
Eschewing music-backed runs in high school, TJ believes the challenge of building mental endurance while running is just as important as building physical strength. “Part of what’s always made running a challenging sport is the mental battle you have to do with yourself,” he says. “Outsourcing your mental strength to Katy Perry or whatever song with the right BPM that speaks to your pop struggle is a cop-out in my opinion.”
Essentially, he argues, running in silence allows him (and others like him) to reach a level of mental clarity that headphones had previously prevented him from achieving. “I’ve never experienced a ‘runner’s high,’ but I’ve definitely been in a meditative state,” TJ continues. “You’re entirely zoned-out, and the next thing you know, you’re 1.5 miles down the trail and feeling lighter.”
When everyday life is filled with pretty much any distraction you can think of (social media, work, family, etc.), music-free runners find that forcing themselves to sit with their own thoughts can, at the very least, “help you process some things so you aren’t lying awake thinking about them.”
Six weeks before TJ ran his first marathon, for example, his dad died. “He was a former runner and always liked talking about courses and race strategies; he bought me a Steve Prefontaine shirt in fifth grade that I still have today,” TJ explains. “During that race, I had an imaginary dialogue with him the whole time. I treated it like a therapy session, and I truly needed that inspiration to keep going.”
Brian, a 35-year-old in Australia, echoes TJ’s sentiment. “Dealing with my anxiety during my run meant that I wasn’t dealing with it when I went to bed. It’s done wonders for my sleep schedule,” he tells me. “Also, running headphones-free gives you a better chance of avoiding being hit by a car, which is a nice plus as well.”
But how can someone like me, with zero mental fortitude, learn to run in silence?
“Just walk out the door and do it,” Brian advises. “The only person holding you back is you. If you need a distraction, set yourself some mini goals like, ‘I just want to reach the next light,’ and then immediately set a new target, or get into the habit of counting steps in a cycle of 10, and up the cadence if you want to run faster. It’s amazing how quickly 500 steps can pass by.”
Once you start, Jaffe promises, it gets easier and easier. “Just like how you increase your distance little by little, to run without music just takes practice. As you train without music, you’ll find your mental toughness will increase, which, in turn, will help your running mental toughness in general,” he concludes. “Instead of distracting yourself from the run and just trying to get it over with, you’re accepting the mental challenge and engrossing yourself in the grind.”